You know that professional life coaching is all about asking the right questions—but it’s also about asking at the right time and in the right way.
That’s why this is not just a bullet point list of great questions to ask your clients; it’s also filled with helpful insight into how to ask and when. Plus, I’ve added some key information about the latest 2022 ICF Core Competencies changes (which are the global gold standard for the coaching industry).
The InnerLifeSkills community are always interested in improving their coaching questioning skills, so I felt it was time to update this old 2018 post.
What we can learn from the new 2022 ICF Core Competencies (including “Powerful Questioning”)
After consulting over 1,300 professionals globally over 2 years, the ICF International Coaching Federation updated the 8 Core Competencies, which includes Competency 6, “Powerful Questioning.” Although truly what we ask our clients and how we ask impacts every competency.
In my early career as a life coach, I learned that even with the best intentions, what we ask clients can backfire. If you’ve ever asked a perfectly good question expecting a client to reply with an “Aha” clarity, but instead, they close their arms, hearts and minds and shut down, then you know how important this understanding is.
With 3 decades of coaching experience behind me, an MCC credential, and the joy of mentoring natural coaches to become skillful inspiring Master Coaches, here’s what I’ve learned about asking coaching questions.
Your coaching questions have the power to direct your client’s attention to either the:
- Surface or Depth
- Past or Future
- Problems or Solutions
Here’s my updated ready-to-use favorite Life Coaching Question list (in order of importance), with tips about how best to use each question.
Because questioning skills are critical coaching skills, every life coach should work to build their coaching question vocabulary.
How we ask is as important as what we ask!
Remember that the coaching question is not enough; we also need to learn how to ask these questions (tone, wording) and when (at what stage in the coaching session).
Asking even a brilliant life coaching question too soon can shut down the flow of a conversation.
Think of some questions as belonging on the ground and others as belonging in the clouds. Some questions focus clients on practical ground-level detail. Other coaching questions lift clients to a broad inspirational aerial viewpoint.
If you feel inspired and someone asks you a ground-level “how-when” style question, it can feel harsh, like “popping-your-idea balloon harsh.” It would also feel odd if you were unpacking details and someone asked you a lofty aerial question.
Master Coaches learn to work intuitively and slowly lift perspectives off the ground using high-level questions. And they also learn to gently bring people down to the ground when practical details need to be excavated.
If you’ve just asked somebody a beautiful, inspiring aerial-level question that gets them choked up with emotion, the next question you ask should not be, “Which day of the week do you want to schedule that for?” Can you see how this is too harsh?
Also, remember that a master coach would not use questions in a vacuum. Incorporate your client’s words (reflective listening backtracking) into the question. And ensure that the question belongs and is relevant to that moment in the coached conversation.
Don’t use questions randomly.
Questions send people on quests, hence the word “quest-ion.”
I’m offering you these 20 questions; remember that they all have a place and need intuitive timing. I’ve explained why I’ve chosen each with some tips.
#20 “How could you possibly make that a reality?”
Coaching tip: Soften the edge of your questions.
This is potentially a typical
If we ask questions in a harsh way we will not harvest good treasures from our questioning.
This question belongs closer to the
#19 What is one small step that you could take, in the next few days, to make a start towards your dream?
Coaching tip: Don’t mix grounded practical questions with inspiring ones.
Like the question above, this coaching question is a grounded one, a typical solution focused coaching question. What I like about it is the “one small step” which makes this question better than other typical questions like, “What steps can you take?” or “What could you do?”
This question also belongs in the middle to the end of the coaching session when it feels time to get into the nitty-gritty of practical action.
Don’t mix this question in with more inspirational higher level questions. It will feel disjointed if it’s in the wrong place.
#18: Who else will benefit from you achieving this?
Coaching tip: Use deepened value questions to create engagement and buy-in.
This is what we at InnerLifeSkills call a deepened value question. It belongs at the beginning of the session but can also be used at any point when you feel that your client needs more motivation and when you need to be more engaged in their coaching session.
It asks the client to realize that more people other than themselves will benefit from their sustained work towards success. This can be highly motivating to many.
Part of our job as a coach, is to motivate and inspire, but it’s more important to help the clients to motivate themselves.
#17: What other areas of your life will benefit from you achieving this goal?
Coaching tip: Don’t only use your
This is the second example of an InnerLifeSkills deepened value question. Our coaches receive 6 pages of notes on deepening the value questions and methods because this is such an important part of coaching.
If you don’t find somebody’s why you can’t find their way. Please don’t make the mistake of trying to use your why (your reason) to motivate someone else to take action.
Excavate their best reason, their most inspiring purpose behind their goal — and you will have a way to motivate them.
#16: How will you know that you are there?
Coaching tip: Clarify and get evidence about what someone means.
It’s amazing how many times we assume we understand what somebody says. If you asked 20 people if they want to be happy, I’m sure most of them would say yes. But what would they mean by the word happy?
This type of question is called an evidence question. It is specifically used when working to establish a contract, which is the defined outcome for a coaching session, or when excavating a goal.
We want to know what will prove to someone that they have reached success.
The ICF Core Competencies (updated in 2022) encourage professional coaches to explore the meaning of a clients words. This would fall under the evidence line of excavation.
“May I ask, what you mean by…?” or “Tell me more about what you mean when you say…” are two example of how you could unpack the meaning of a client’s word.
#15: How can you keep yourself on track?
Coaching tip: Get your client to keep themselves on track.
It’s one thing establishing goals it’s quite another taking action. Many people fail to implement. This is where coaching is so incredibly important, its role is to keep people moving forward.
Our role as coaches is often to be an accountability partner, which is not about policing or managing our clients, ICF competency guidelines are very clear that our role is to partner with clients.
This question is called a deepening commitment question.
Notice that we ask the client to find their own best solutions to keep themselves on track. As a coach we don’t take it on our shoulders to keep our clients on track. And neither do we tell them how to make sure that they stay on track.
#14: What truly motivates you?
Coaching tip: Find out what motivates your client.
This lovely short question can open up a wonderful discussion and give us a lot of good information to help our clients to be inspired to take action towards their dreams and goals. Clarifying what truly motivates us is an excavation into our core values.
This type of question I feel belongs at the beginning of a coaching session, because it is inspirational in its nature. Use it when you are looking at a high level with your client, among other inspirational questions. Or use it to create buy-in and motivation at any stage.
The ICF encourages short succinct questions, because long or “stacked questions” are confusing for clients. Imagine asking a client “What motivates you, or inspires you to take action and move forward. Tell me about your drives and inspiration.”
Can you see how a simple “What truly motivates you?” is far better?
#13: Just suppose there were a few possible solutions, what 3 come to mind first?
Coaching tip: Make your questions exploratory and experimental.
If we ask too harshly or directly, like for example “What is the solution?” We can put so much pressure on the client that they fail to answer properly, giving us a surface answers or simply reply, “I don’t know.”
But asking for just a few possible solutions, and note the word “possible”, and suggesting that we want 3 that simply “come to mind” we make the conversation exploratory and low risk.
This creates an environment where your client feels free enough to experiment with ideas.
This invites innovation, intuition and creativity.
The ICF when training their PCC and MCC assessment markers explains the difference between a question that is an inquiry vs a full exploration.
- An inquiry is usually a single question.
- Whereas explorations are several related questions where you excavate deeper awareness around the focus point in the coached conversation. I call this taking out a picnic basket on the scenic route, to further explore an important insight or obstacle.
Knowing when to inquire and when to explore is a key to master levels of coaching. Often amateur coaches miss opportunities to explore.
#12: When I repeat your words, what happens to the sensations and felt sense of your body?
Coaching tip: Include somatic explorations to deepen your session.
When students ask me, “How can I help a session to go deeper than a surface conversation?” I always suggest they include somatic coaching exploration.
Somatic (means soma of the body). Somatic coaching is fast becoming a popular addition to master coach toolboxes because it quickly takes a coaching session to depths.
But, it’s not easy to facilitate because, for some clients, it can sound odd.
Somatic exploration could include reflecting on a client’s words to ask how those words “land” and alter their felt sense, sensations, comfort, muscle tension etc.
CLIENT: “I’m inspired to let go of my self-doubt so I can finally step up and step into my power.”
COACH: “If I repeat your words, I’d like to know how they land; what happens in your body when I say I can finally STEP UP and STEP into my power?“
CLIENT: “I feel stronger.”
COACH: “You feel stronger. And what happens to your body posture when you step up and step into your power.”
CLIENT: “My head lifts.”
COACH: “And what else? Take your time and describe what’s happening. If it helps, I invite you to breathe in your words, step up and into your power…”
CLIENT: “My shoulders relax; I feel like I can breathe deeper. I notice my feet connected to the ground.”
As you can tell, the session has gone to a wonderful, deeper exploration space. Can you imagine if the coach had missed this opportunity to explore the important insight somatically?
#11: If you take a moment to imagine yourself already living the dream, how does that feel?
Coaching tip: Help your client to imagine their success and then plan from that perspective.
This question is like a condensed version of the Neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) “As If frame.”
The theory behind this line of questioning is that it is easier for the mind to come up with solutions when it imagines already being in the reality of the goal. Imagine standing on a cliff looking across the canyon at another cliff which represents our goal. It’s hard to imagine how are we going to get there.
So instead we imagine already being at the goal, and then ask our minds to come up with possible solutions that we took in hindsight.
This is also called
You could add somatic exploration here as well, to add even more depth.
#10: May I challenge you here? I could be wrong, but you say you want this, but your tone seems unsure; what are your thoughts?
Coaching tip: Ask permission to give feedback and challenge your client.
If you sense that your client is saying one thing but feeling another, or if you have an intuition to stretch your client, this line of questioning can help.
As coaches, we ask permission to challenge.
This challenging permission question must be asked slowly with established rapport (trust).
Most likely, this question would be used during a deeper exploratory part of the coaching session. It can be used to clarify or offer feedback.
Notice I also suggest adding “I could be wrong” which makes space for discussion and ensures you don’t position your feedback as a “fact” but rather as an opinion. This aligns with ICF’s updated competencies.
#9: How can you best support yourself right now?
Coaching tip: Help your client to help themselves.
If your client is experiencing vulnerability or expressing difficult feelings, this is a good coaching response. As
We provide a safe neutral space that is non-judgemental and ask powerful questions to help them to discover their own best solutions.
So if your client starts to struggle, use this open empowering question, give them a lot of space and don’t rush them for answers. Especially if they’re vulnerable.
The ICF updated competencies ask us to neither dismiss or disrespect a client’s beliefs, feelings, perceptions or values. Even though life coaching is different to therapy, when a client is being vulnerable we don’t minimize their feelings or skip over them. We make space and show that we care.
#8: Even if the worst happened, what is still true that is important to you?
Coaching tip: Find what is still true to neutralize a client’s fear.
InnerLifeSkills Personal Power short certification course teaches a coaching process called, “equal to future outcomes.” I love this process for its power to neutralize our fears about the dreaded, “what if’s” that keep us paralyzed.
This question comes from this InnerLifeSkills process and must be used
The intention is to help the client to find something that cannot be taken from a dreaded feared future.
When marking Professional and Master level assessments, we listen for evidence of the coach exploring the WHAT and the WHO of the client (using ICF language). If you focus only on the practical actions to-do-list level of a coaching session, you miss out on opportunities to do inner work.
A professional and master level coach needs to demonstrate that they can coach the WHO as well as the WHAT. The WHO means asking questions that explores the whole client: their values, feelings, perceptions as well as their personal growth and learning.
By finding out what is still true for a client, you uncover their values.
#7: Imagine that you have …. —completely and totally—what does this give you inside of yourself that is even more important to you?
Coaching tip: Excavate your client’s core values.
This question can be repeated again and again to help the client to go deeper and deeper through layers of values until they strike the treasure of finding a core value.
A core value is central to a person. It represents very personal and very significant aspects of themselves.
- CLIENT: “If I reach this goal I will feel relief.”
- COACH: “Imagine you had total and complete relief, feel that for a moment. What does relief give you inside of yourself that’s even more important?”
- CLIENT: “Peace.”
- COACH: “Now imagine you had total and complete peace, breathe that in if you like. With peace, what do you have inside of yourself that is even more important than peace?”
- CLIENT: “… I feel free, I know I am enough.”
- COACH: “You feel free, you know you are enough!”
#6: Imagine yourself a few years in the future, what advice do you think your future self would give you today?
Coaching tip: Get your client to give themselves good advice.
This is a fun easy-to-use
Some of my graduate InnerLifeSkills Coaches have even turned this into an exercise, where they get their clients to write themselves letters, from their future successful self.
What a wonderful way to get someone to give themselves good advice!
#5: Just suppose that feeling was trying to give you something positive; what would it be?
Coaching tip: Excavate a positive intention behind an inner obstacle.
This is my #5 coaching question because it’s one of our most popular and powerful InnerLifeSkills processes called the InnerLifeSkills Kite taught in our Master Coach full accredited certification program. This question helps to excavate the client’s positive intention behind even destructive or limiting behaviors.
Once we have a positive intention, the good reason behind bad behavior, we can leverage the client’s positive intention to transform the bad behavior.
This question needs to be asked very skilfully, with a lot of rapport (trust building).
#4: Why does this matter to you?
Coaching tip: Help people to discover and clarify meaning.
This is such a simple question but it is in the top 5 for a reason. Finding someone’s why is the key to their inspiration and motivation. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that your why will motivate your client. Take the time to find their reasons.
This short open question could lead to important insights. It shows you care. Make sure to ask with a tone of curiosity or add “I’m curious…”
Also, don’t assume that people already know the answer to this question.
By asking questions like this we help people to discover and clarify what is only whispering inside of themselves.
Now for my top 3 life coaching questions…
#3: If you were guaranteed success, what would you try?
Coaching tip: Create an inspiring vision for your client.
This broad sweeping inspiring question deserves time and space. Don’t ask it in a quick flippant way. Reserve it for somewhere early in the session when you want to lift the client up to an aerial view, to see the bigger picture and to create a vision for themselves.
Use this question for visioning, working to establish goals and to inspire.
#2: If you were totally free, who would you be?
Coaching tip: Invite
One of my most inspiring dreams is to help others to be free. Free of the binding ignorance that imprisons and restricts us.
That’s why this is my second
Don’t rush their answers. Let them discover the many possible answers that can arise from such an important question.
#1: What is the deeper truth?
Coaching tip: Look for deeper truth.
This is my favorite No #1 question. It’s the question I’ve used for over 20 years in self-coaching, meditation, and contemplation when seeking inner wisdom.
It’s the question I reserve for clients in that special moment when it’s time to let the truth illuminate and free someone’s mind.
This is not a question that you ask without deep reverence and respect. To ask this question well, you must hold a safe space, use silence and stay in what the ICF call Coach Presence (professional, caring and without a personal agenda).” In other words, be egoless, neutral and non-judgemental.
If you don’t ask this question properly the client’s surface mind may answer “I don’t know,” or they simply won’t understand the question.
But if you ask it, seeking deep wisdom, it can be powerfully transformative.
Every time I’ve asked myself this question, adding my intuition to go deeper than my own surface mind, I have found treasures that have often been life-changing. It helps to add Intuition Coaching methods to this question.
Every moment in our lives offers us the opportunity to look at things at the surface level or to find the deeper truth.
The truth does set us free.
Looking for deeper truth and being willing to challenge anything less than the deepest truth takes courage.
That is why this coaching question is my most prized and valued question. I am so grateful for the question and what it is has brought to many of my clients and me.
Go beyond ‘to-do-list’ coaching
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